After 52 years on Sepulveda Boulevard, the Culver Ice Arena was forced to close on Sunday, February 2 due to rent increases from its landlord. Following weeks of protesting, petitioning and rallying, the fight over Culver Ice Arena has been one of the most publicized recent examples of staggering rent hikes that are driving longtime businesses and residents out of Culver City's formerly working class enclave.
The Westside ice rink with an iconic, retro skater statute on its roof had been on a 49-year lease, followed by a two-year lease with an extension, until the lease went up for public bidding about six months ago, says skating instructor Shannon Takahashi. Despite bids from the L.A. Kings and the team's owner, AEG, the building's lease had been signed over Christmas by the highest bidder: Planet Granite, a Northern California-based rock climbing facility with three outposts in the Bay Area and another in Portland, Oregon.
Last week, the fight to preserve the rink took a new turn when Culver City officials dug up a circa-1960 document that prohibits the property to be used for anything except an ice rink. While it's yet to be determined whether the document still holds legal standing more than half a century later, the Culver Ice Arena is seizing the opportunity to organize yet another gathering of support, dubbed “home stretch rally,” at Culver City's city hall on Monday evening.
Before this new development, we asked five multi-generational friends and staffers of the Culver Ice Arena to share their memories of the 52-year-old institution throughout the decades. The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Shannon Takahashi, skating school and youth hockey director at Culver Ice Arena
I started skating here when I was eight and I just turned 36 at the end of January. I came for a birthday party and totally got hooked. I worked here at the coffee shop when I was 13 to pay for more lessons. I started at the cash box, and I've been on payroll for 20 years. My dad [freestyle coordinator Richie Takahashi] started running the figure skating sessions when I was coming every morning, and my mom [office manager Barbara Takahashi] started doing the book keeping. You pretty much don't leave. Everybody that works here has been here forever.
We're old and we're not fancy but we still draw thousands of skaters – about 5,000 a week. Every four years, little girls watch ice skating on TV and now they want to be an Olympic ice skater. It's amazing how many people start here after the Winter Olympics.
Our sign, the ice rink sign, is I guess pretty epic for the era. It was grandfathered in because of height restrictions. You can't have that high of a sign anymore in Culver City. And the figure skater on our roof, she's supposedly Donna Atwood. She was the Queen of the Ice Capades.
[Don Harris, son of Donna Atwood and president of domestic distribution for Paramount Pictures
There was a statue with a likeness to my mother that was actually [on the front of] the old Ice Capades office near Santa Monica and Gower in Hollywood. My dad [champion figure skater Eugene Turner] lived in an apartment on top of that office after my parents got divorced. He ran Ice Capades and a lot of other things. He sold that company to Metromedia, which was a big media company back in the day. At the same time, he bought an ice rink out in Covina right off the 10 Freeway.
He had a house in Palm Springs, and when we would go from L.A. to Palm Springs, we would drive by that ice rink. He put that statue on the top of the ice rink so we'd go by Mom every time we'd go to Palm Springs and see that statue. The only female skater that I ever saw in L.A. associated with being on the front of an ice rink was my mother. I think they bulldozed that Covina ice rink years ago, but my guess is that statue [atop Culver Ice Arena] is probably the same statue that was in front of the Ice Capades office on Santa Monica and was on top of the Covina Ice Capades on the 10 Freeway.
In her day, she was the star of stars out of the various figure skating clubs in Los Angeles, and she taught figure skating out here for a while, down in Palos Verdes and all of that, and wherever she went in that world she was extremely well known. My wife took her to an Ice Capades reunion in Las Vegas, and you would've thought she was a combination of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She lived in a big house in Beverly Hills on Sunset Boulevard just down the road from the Beverly Hills Hotel and she was a big deal in her day.
Part of her legend was that she was a professional roller skater at the age of four or five, and her mother took her on the road and she'd perform all over the country. When she was 12 or 13, they moved from Albuquerque to L.A. to further her career. She went to Hollywood High School and she started ice skating at Pickwick Ice Rink in Burbank. By 15, she was U.S. national pairs champion and then was a favorite to be the gold medalist in women's singles in the 1944 Olympics that were canceled for the war. She either had to wait four more years or turn pro. They didn't have any money, so she turned pro and my dad signed her. He owned the Ice Capades, and she was his employee. He was twice her age.
They put together a traveling ice revue that would play these arenas when the hockey team was away or when the basketball team was away. My father was friends with Walt Disney, and just to show you how things have changed over the ears, Walt Disney was thrilled to have his characters featured in Ice Capades. Imagine what you'd have to pay to have Disney characters in your show now. But in those days, it was reversed. One of the shows they did was Peter Pan. My mother used to fly over the ice in a trapeze. In those days they'd take the ice show to New York, and they'd go to Atlantic City and they'd get reviewed like a play and then return to Los Angeles where they'd end the tour.
James Feld, former music coordinator for U.S. Figure Skating Association
I started skating at Culver Ice Arena in 1997. I used to go like three times a week. After a while, you start to meet people there, and you start to have a group of people that go there often, and there's people that come back every week. We were considered the regulars – I was, my future wife, a bunch of other people. We took a class on Sunday nights, and at one point I went up and said hello [to my future wife, Marilyn] and started talking to her about skates. A group of us started going out for dinner afterwards and pretty soon it was like, well, I think we'll just go one on one. And then we started going out on non-skating nights. One thing led to another. We got married in 2002. I'm 53 now.
We were adult skaters who didn't know how to skate until we were adults so we weren't going to be Olympians or anything. We were taking full-on skating lessons. It was a type of skating that wasn't well known. It was called synchronized ice skating. It's like ice dancing but with 24 people on the ice. Some people are in a group doing formations and maneuvers and some things that are not dangerous but a little more risky – passing through other groups, making formations and some minor jumps. I was never into hockey skating, just because I started lessons with a friend who started figure skating. I ended up taking figure skating lessons as a dare with him.
I joined the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which is the organization that supports all the skaters going through the national and Olympic competitions. I became music coordinator for them. Whenever I was at a competition at Culver, I would always play the music there because I have a technical background so I became the personal sound guy for the club.
I enjoyed going there because I don't go to bars, I don't really drink. So that was my hangout. That was where I went if I wanted to be social. I can get my exercise, it's my gym. I can cool off during the summer, and I can meet people. After skate lessons, we had a number of places we would go to. We would go to Tito's Tacos, Johnny's Pastrami. Culver City, that was our place. I remember one of the guys in my speed skating group passed on. We said, 'Hey let's go to Johnny's,' and we sat outdoors and pulled up the tablecloth and carved his name into one of the tables.
My son now goes there once a week for hockey lessons. My daughter goes for beginning lessons. That was one of the things that I always thought would be nice is that we wanted to go when [our kids] were old enough that they weren't hanging on to us.
Ronda Kalan, volunteer assistant coach at L.A. Kings Valley Ice Center
I've been to so many rinks because I started skating in 1953, and I'm now 63. I've seen rinks open and close. I've been to a lot of them. I was in a show at Culver [Ice Arena] in junior high or high school. We did the opening number – I believe it was called “Blue Danube.” We all wore two-tone blue chiffon dresses, and [world champion figure skater] Peggy Fleming was the star of it. We all got a patch of ice to practice our figure-eights on. Those that were really advanced were working on two circles called serpentines. For some reason I got across from Peggy so many times that she would say, 'Oh excuse me, go ahead.' So she would do her serpentines and overlap on my patch.
On Friday nights it was a pick-up place. They would have a disco ball, and we'd all partner up and skate. I never dated then but besides that I didn't really date anyone from there. We used to pretend that we couldn't skate and ask, 'Oh, would you help me?' And as soon as we'd meet a guy and he'd help us, I'd skate off and do a fancy jump and show off. This is what we did. I was a little too young to cruise Van Nuys Blvd. at the time. I was always a good kid. Skating was my thing. We were called rink rats. People who just hung out at the rink. And that was our social life. It was like home, we went so much. I would skate before school and after school. Sadly we've seen so many rinks open and close.
My favorite skating instructor was Mabel Fairbanks, who I took classes with at the Polar Palace in Hollywood. At the time I lived in Culver City. I was 12, and I took two buses to get to the Polar Palace. She told me I didn't have enough oomph. Throughout the years until I was older, if I did a spin or a jump, I would think of Mabel and say, 'I got oomph.' She was always so dear to me. She was a lovable, terrific person. She had orange hair and beautiful skin and the biggest smile and rosy cheeks. My husband and I became swing dancers and I had one of my shirts embroidered with her name rather than mine just because I loved her so much. She got me my first professional skating job when I was at the Culver rink and saw her there. It was 1968, my senior year of high school. I talked my teachers into letting me do my work from Hawaii In between Thanksgiving vacation and Christmas break so I could go and skate in a show for a month.
I remember [figure skating champion] Atoy Wilson as a little boy skating near me and I thought, 'Oh, he's good.' He was one of Mabel's students. She wanted to train black skaters so they could go on to the Olympics. Her…mission was to help promote the sport's diversity. I was at the Hollywood Forever cemetery and saw her [gravestone] and thought, 'Why was she there? She was my skating coach.' So I went and looked her up and I started reading. I thought, 'My god, that was my teacher?' When I was skating with her I just knew that she was the best teacher that I ever had. I had no idea [that she was the first African American inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.]
Crystalrose Guerra, private lesson instructor at Culver Ice Arena
I've been skating at this rink since I was 6, and I just turned 25. I started off as a dancer and one of my friends had a birthday party and I just got hooked on it ever since. I signed up for league classes with my best friend and I was like, 'Wow, I'm great at this,' and so I just stuck with it. This would've been my fourth year doing private lessons but I've been on staff here since I was in high school.
I have a little sister who skates here, my brother works here, my mom works here. It's a family affair. We moved to Culver City when I started skating because I wanted to be closer to the rink. It's crazy. I left for tour when I was 17 or 18 and I came back and it's like I never left. It kind of just stays the same and the people kind of come and go, the management and staff say the same. It's just one of those things, it just never changes. It's like it's one little time zone. Friday pick up nights were happening when I was in high school and it's still happening now, the middle and high schoolers still go there. It's like the safest place for their parents to drop them off and hang out. In our school yearbook, Culver Ice Arena was voted the coolest place to hang out.
There's really not much more to say other than it's just become this amazing piece of Culver City and I learned to drive in the parking lot. You know, I had my first dates here with my boyfriends and everyone watching to make sure everything was OK. Moms hanging out all over the place. It's just sad because a lot of kids won't have that anymore.
The “home stretch rally” to support the Culver Ice Arena takes place Monday, Feb. 10 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at City Hall, 9770 Culver Blvd. in Culver City. Takahashi and others hope to gain 16,000 signatures on a petition they'll be presenting to Culver City Council during a public meeting. You can learn more and sign the petition via the website.